Lawmaker wants motorists to use handsfree devices
SACRAMENTO — Assemblyman Joe Simitian firmly believes in following the driving instructor’s admonition about keeping both hands on the steering wheel — even when you’re on the phone.
For the third time, the Palo Alto Democrat is trying to persuade his colleagues to approve a bill that would ban drivers from using hand-held cell phones except to call a public safety agency in an emergency.
Citing highway patrol figures, Simitian says cell-phone use is the No. 1 cause of driver-distracted accidents — topping radios, smoking, eating, children, pets, reading and personal grooming.
“I’m hopeful that the growing mountain of evidence as to the dangers associated with hand-held cell phones and driving will be enough to bring folks around,” he said.
A first offense under Simitian’s bill could result in a $20 fine. Subsequent violations would carry a maximum fine of $50. Drivers could use handsfree cell phones without threat of a penalty.
New York has a handsfree requirement, and New Jersey lawmakers are on the verge of passing such a law. Twenty-two other countries have restrictions on cell phone use by motorists.
Two earlier versions of Simitian’s bill, introduced in 2001 and 2002, fell one vote short of passing the Assembly Transportation Committee. The committee, with several new members, will probably take up the latest bill in February, March or April.
This time Simitian has more ammunition on his side.
A Harvard University study released Dec. 2, the same day Simitian introduced the new bill, estimates that about one in 20 U.S. traffic accidents are caused by a driver talking on a cell phone, resulting in 2,600 deaths and 330,000 injuries each year.
CHP Commissioner Dwight “Spike” Helmick says figures he’s seen on cell-phone-related traffic accidents have caused him to rethink his feelings about the bill.
“It does appear that the number of accidents where a phone was in use is higher than I thought it would be…,” he said. “In the past I would have probably said there’s no need to look at the topic. I have changed views. It’s something worth looking at.”
The CHP is supposed to send lawmakers a report on cell-phone-related accidents by Jan. 1.
But The Los Angeles Times, in an analysis of traffic accident data, found that there were at least 4,699 accidents in California that were blamed on drivers using cell phones in the last nine months of 2001, resulting in 31 deaths and 2,786 injuries.
Requiring drivers to use handsfree phones won’t eliminate all phone-related distractions, but it will help, Simitian says.
Japanese police reported a 52 percent drop in injuries and accidents caused by cell-phone-using drivers after that country barred motorists from using hand-held phones in 1996.
“You solve the problems you can solve,” Simitian says.
He says the three cellular phone companies that opposed the earlier bills — Sprint, Cingular and AT&T Wireless — have “brochures that say flat out that it’s unsafe to drive using hand-held cell phones.”
“These same companies came to the committee room to testify against the bill,” he said. “To call it disingenuous is to give them all the breaks.”
Gina Pernetti, a spokeswoman for AT&T Wireless, says her company hasn’t decided what position it will take on the bill this time around.
In the past, she said, “we didn’t feel that talking on a cellular phone was any more of a distraction than changing a CD player or talking to other passengers in the car.
“We were looking to have legislation focusing on distracted driving rather than focusing on cell phone use.”
Representatives of Sprint and Cingular Wireless did not return phone calls from The Associated Press. A fourth company, Verizon Wireless, supports the legislation.
“If we can give customers the tools to keep both hands on the wheel we think that’s a good thing,” said Mike Bagley, Verizon’s director of public policy.
Simitian said cell phones are sold these days with handsfree attachments. Separately the attachments cost as little as $4.95, he added.
“The bill I propose would not require anyone to stop having their conversations,” he said. “They can talk as often and as much as they want. The only requirement is they do it on handsfree phones. It strikes me as a pretty minor accommodation for the lives you would save.” ——–
On the Net: Read the bill, AB45, at http://www.assembly.ca.gov.